Leon Gorman, who transformed L.L. Bean from a folksy, mail-order catalog business founded by his grandfather into a globally known supplier of outdoor gear and apparel, has died from cancer, the company announced Thursday morning. He was 80.

Gorman was widely known in Maine for his philanthropic work and his involvement in numerous causes and civic organizations. An outdoorsman who could have been the cover model on any number of famed L.L. Bean catalogs, he focused much of the company’s charitable efforts on conservation and recreation.

The company experienced explosive growth during his 34 years as president and 12 years as chairman of the board, with revenues rising from under $5 million in 1967 to $1.6 billion in 2013.  Gorman cultivated a company brand defined by its customer service and commitment to the outdoors. The brand became so powerful that it has shaped Maine’s image nationally, and its economic impact is felt far beyond the company’s 5,200 year-round employees, said Sen. Susan Collins, a longtime friend of Gorman.

Around the country, the iconic rubber-soled hunting boot has become as much a symbol of Maine as the lighthouse and lobster, she said.

“That is what Leon’s unique, visionary leadership did,” she said.

Gorman was a softspoken man with brilliant mind and deep concern for his employees and the environment, said former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, whose friendship with Gorman dates back to the 1950s when they were both students at Bowdoin College and members of the same fraternity.

“He did not speak much or loudly,” he said. “But what he said always carried great influence.”

Gorman transformed the company during his decades at the helm of L.L. Bean.

A graduate of Cheverus High School and Bowdoin College, Gorman served four years in the U.S. Navy before joining the family business in 1961.

He became president in 1967 after the death of his grandfather, Leon Leonwood Bean, who founded the company in 1912. Many employees wondered if the company could survive without L.L.’s leadership because he had such a powerful personality and had been involved in almost every aspect of the company’s day-to-day operations.

The company at the time was heading downhill, said Gorman in a 2006 interview with the Press Herald just after his memoir, “L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon,” was published. “L.L. and his son, Carl, held onto all the authority, yet weren’t doing anything. The product line and catalog merchandising and operations were all going downhill. Profits were marginal. If I hadn‘t come along, the company would have gone out of business or, more likely, been sold under adverse circumstances.”

Gorman is widely credited with reviving sales through a new vision for the company that embraced technology and diversification while holding fast to its customer-first founding values.

He hired aggressive young managers and pioneered changes in the mail-order business that brought an annual growth rate of nearly 20 percent over his tenure, according to remarks made during Gorman’s 1994 induction into Babson College’s entrepreneurs hall of fame. He launched innovations in database management and set a bar for customer service that is still used as a national model.

“To L.L. Bean, the customer is sovereign,” said the Babson testimonial. “L.L. Bean offers an unconditional guarantee: they will exchange anything for any reason. Orders are processed in two or three days, unlike most mail-order companies where two weeks is typical. And if customers have to call for any reason, they will find operators so friendly and courteous that they may feel as if they’ve made a new friend.”

Often the subject of Harvard Business School case studies, L.L. Bean prizes both employee and customer.

Elaine Rosen, former president of the UNUM Life Insurance Co. of America, said she witnessed Gorman’s style of leadership while working with him on projects with the United Way and the Preble Street Resource Center.

Gorman at a meeting would let others talk and focus his energy on listening to each individual. Then he would ask a few questions and lead the group to the heart of the issue at hand, she said.

Gorman was so reticent that some people underestimated him, said Barry Mills, past president of Bowdoin College, where Gorman served as a trustee. But Gorman delved into the college’s most complex and challenging issues, such as undertaking an analysis of its academic programs, he said. Gorman urged the private college to accept more Maine students, most of whom needed significant financial aid.

“He spoke with clarity and common sense,” Mills said. “He was a real Mainer.”

Gorman’s leadership helped create one of the state’s mainstay employers. In the mad scramble by retailers in the early ‘90s to save money by outsourcing customer service to off-shore operatives, Gorman insisted L.L. Bean keep and expand its call center operations in Maine.

Today, the company ranks third in Maine’s top private employers.

AGGRESSIVE GROWTH

Gorman’s leadership through the early 1970s happily coincided with a rise in recreational activities and a growing awareness of environmentalism, according to industry analysts. He had already increased the company’s advertising budget and introduced modern order-processing and fulfillment systems.

By 1974, he had computerized many segments of the business and relocated its manufacturing into a new building in Brunswick. That year, the company built a 110,000-square-foot distribution center in Freeport. Today, that building is 1 million square feet.

Then in 1981, the company got a boost from Lisa Birnbach’s “Official Preppy Handbook,” which described the retailer as “nothing less than a prep mecca.”

Sales that had continued to build through the ‘80s came to a screeching halt in the early 1990s recession. That coupled with a looming postal rate increase of 30 percent led to layoffs of 10 percent of Bean’s workforce.

Rather than retrench, Gorman pushed the company forward, opening a new line of children’s wear and retail operations in what was then a hot market in Japan where by 1997, there were 11 stores.

Sales had rebounded and broke the $1 billion mark for the first time in 1996.

That was also the year, it launched online ordering via its website  — a prescient move. Thirteen years later, its online orders outpaced its telephone and catalog orders. The company prepared for the boom in sales by building  a 650,000-square-foot plant with the capacity to process 27 million items per year.

Ironically, Gorman wasn‘t much fond of digital technology. Although he respected its power in the marketplace, he never liked to use a computer, describing himself as “computer illiterate”and confessing he wrote his book in long hand.

Toward the end of his rein as chief executive, Gorman saw the launch of subsidiaries like the Freeport Studio line of contemporary women’s fashions and an expansion of retail stores in the U.S. Today, in addition to the company’s flagship store in Freeport, it has 24 retail stores in 14 states. Four new stores are opening this year.

Gorman stepped down as president in 2001 and named Chris McCormick to be his successor.

In an email the company sent to employees Thursday morning, McCormick said Gorman had been a mentor and friend to many.

“Most importantly, he was the most decent human being you would ever want to meet,” he said.

In 2013, Gorman stepped down as board chairman. His nephew, Shawn Gorman, a great grandchild of the company founder, took his place. Jennifer Wilson, one of the Gormans’ three children, said in an email that her father’s life and character were intertwined with the company he built and loved.

“Not surprisingly, the personality traits that describe our company fit my Dad to a tee,” she said.

While the company continues to grow, its success today would not be possible without the work of Leon Gorman, Rosen said.

“He’s the person who took over his grandfather’s company and made it into a legend,” she said.

A PHILANTHROPIST AND COMMUNITY FRIEND

Gorman was as deft with a fly rod as he was with running a billion-dollar company. He insisted top personnel join him on outdoor excursions every year in both a corporate retreat and an opportunity to test new gear.

“I wanted L.L. Bean’s leadership committed to the outdoors,” Gorman told the Press Herald. “I remember testing first-generation waterproof, breathable rain wear on a St. John River trip one year. We were all wet for a week.“

Gorman’s commitment to the outdoors extended beyond market testing and leadership training. In the last five years, L.L. Bean donated more than $6 million in support of the National Park Foundation, Appalachian Trail Conference, Maine Audubon and others, according to the company. For decades, employees have maintained a section of the Appalachian Trail by clearing brush and building pathways and lean-tos. Under Gorman‘s guidance, the company pledged to become greener, adopting a recycling program, energy-efficiency and product stewardship.

Perhaps the most striking example of Gorman’s commitment to the environment came from his 1990 ascent of Mount Everest. He and others participating in the Mount Everest Peace Climb made the trek on Earth Day to clear debris from the mountain and to supply the base camp. The effort was supported with a $100,000 grant of clothing and gear from the company.

Gorman, and his wife, Lisa, also supported many other charities, apart from environmental groups. Through the 1980s,the Gormans led the region’s United Way campaigns. Together, the couple established a local society for families that contributed $10,000 or more to the United Way. They also established a fund for local immigrant and minority youths to send them to summer camps. Other initiatives include helping to build the YMCA in Freeport and support for organizations such as the Boys Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, the Maine Community College Foundation’s Leadership Council, and the Preble Street Resource Center.

Leon and Lisa Gorman first became involved with Preble Street about 15 years ago on a project to build a drop-in center for runaway teens. Beyond donating a significant amount of money, the couple become personally involved with the project and the people it served, said Mark Swann, the organization’s executive director.

Leon Gorman also donated his labor. Every Wednesday morning for more than 12 years, Gorman helped cook breakfast for 400 people at Preble Street’s soup kitchen.  There, he was just another volunteer who started off as a dishwasher and worked his way up to the grill, where he cooked  eggs, hash browns and pancakes. When breakfast was over, he would pull the stove away from the wall and get down on his knees and scrub the grease that had splattered behind the stove, Swann said. Most volunteers wouldn’t bother.

He said Gorman became an important adviser for the nonprofit and used his experience to help the nonprofit strategize and develop a business model.

“We were incredibly fortunate to have had him as a kind of mentor to the agency,” Swann said. “He was a wonderful man. I will miss him terribly.”

Gorman was also a supporter of education. Besides being a trustee at Bowdoin College, and he and Lisa also led fundraising efforts for the Maine Community College System to ensure education opportunities for Maine students.

In politics, Gorman was not partisan and gave money to candidates in both parties. On one issue, casino gambling, he played a key role. He opposed gambling in part because he worried that casinos would degrade Maine’s image. For nearly a decade he bankrolled political campaigns to defeat referendums to legalize gambling. The effort failed in 2003 when voters approved slot machines for Bangor Raceway and later a casino in Oxford.

He was one of the wealthiest people in Maine – amassing a fortune estimated to be worth several hundred million dollars – but he continued to live in Yarmouth in the same village house on Portland Street where he grew up.

He was often seen walking with his dogs on Main Street or a trail along the Royal River. Gorman donated money to rebuild the town’s library and to build a museum celebrating the town’s history. The museum is named after his mother, Barbara Bean Gorman.

During his walks, Gorman would greet people, including strangers, said Linda Grant, who chaired the Yarmouth Historical Society when it built the museum.

“He was a very humble person,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know who he was.”

Funeral details are expected to be announced Friday.

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